As Hamas and its rival Fatah flirt with civil war in the Palestinian territories, the White House brain trust has finally come up with a plan to, well, do something in the West Bank and Gaza: It's going to pump up the Palestinian security forces, currently aligned with President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction, doubling the size of the forces closest to Abbas.
"We're talking tens of millions" of dollars in support, Secretary of State Rice told Reuters a few days ago. (The money, which needs congressional approval, won't be used directly for arms; Egypt and Jordan are helpfully providing the guns.)
The idea is simple: Squeeze Hamas, fortify the opposition, and hope for the best. It's a tempting concept, but it's a bad idea. The United States and Europe employed a similar game plan through much of the 1990s—throwing cash at the Palestinian government, the security forces in particular, just as long as they opposed Hamas. It not only proved ineffective, it made things worse.
A decade ago, there was hope in the West Bank and Gaza. The Oslo Accords had recently been signed; Yasser Arafat and his fellow exiles had returned triumphantly; and Israel's occupation was being phased out. But there was also another side.
Arafat and his minions turned out to have authoritarian tendencies. One of the Palestinian Authority's first official acts was to close down a daily newspaper after Arafat was offended by a story it ran. As an adviser to Arafat explained at the time, "There are no restrictions on the Palestinian press, with one exception: that it should not be against the interests of the Palestinian people."
An even bigger problem was that the Palestinian Authority resembled a kleptocracy rather than a functioning state. One initially secret Palestinian audit—cited by the World Bank—found that in 1996 about 40 percent of the state's budget had been embezzled. Another 35 percent went to pay for security forces. Factor in Arafat's "personal fund," which lacked accounting oversight, and a mere 10 percent or so of the budget was left for the needs of the residents of the West Bank and Gaza.
There are many reasons why the Palestinian government turned out to be so dysfunctional. But a contributing factor, somewhat paradoxically, was the U.S. and European approach to aid. Throughout the 1990s and until Hamas was elected in early 2006, foreign governments and other entities such as the European Union provided the majority of the Palestinian government's budget. One recent U.N.-funded report found that the biggest repository of aid was the Palestinian Authority's general account—in other words, money with few strings attached, much of which appears to have been used not for much-needed development of the economy, but instead to fund the security forces.
It was a kind of payoff, the implicit bargain being: Keep terror in check, and we'll keep the money flowing. In that narrow sense, it worked for a few years. But the aid didn't really stabilize the occupied territories—in the long run, it helped to destabilize them.
With foreign aid flowing in to fund the security forces, the Palestinian government became less accountable to citizens. After all, the populace wasn't paying the bills—the European Union and others were. No surprise, then, that the Palestinian Authority was providing few true services or that the majority of "public sector" positions in the 1990s were for policemen and soldiers. (And as a bonus, once the second intifada began in 2000, many of those security forces began to moonlight for militant groups such as the Fatah-backed al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.)
The result was a government deeply distrusted by Palestinians, one they wanted to kick out. Washington now appears to be making the same mistake again: tossing aside concerns about good governance and instead funding Fatah's forces simply because they're not Hamas.
Ironically, the strategy isn't likely to help Fatah or Abbas, whose problem isn't lack of money or guns but paucity of support. "Our image in the streets is very bad," one "senior Fatah official" told Time. "We are seen as self-interested and collaborators [with Israel], not fighters for Palestine." Meanwhile, the White House has long demurred from pushing Israel to do things that would have shored up Abbas, such as scaling back checkpoints, allowing an increased flow of goods, and generally making everyday life in the territories a little more livable.
Of course, propping up the security forces isn't just a solid bet to backfire on Fatah's interests but also on our own.
In the long run, the world would benefit from a Palestinian government that was truly representative of and responsive to its people. (Polls consistently show Palestinians support a two-state solution.) It's not an easy task, and Washington's options for helping are probably limited to providing incentives for good governance and disincentives for the lack of it. But one thing is clear: Buying off the security forces isn't the way to go.
Eric Umansky, previously the "Today's Papers" columnist for Slate, is currently a Gordon Grey Fellow at Columbia University's School of Journalism.